GENERAL SINGLAUB apart, almost everyone in Washington agrees that it's safe to remove ground troops from South Korea, if we use our other forces and our supply pipeline and our diplomacy to keep the balance. What is only now heaving into general view, however, is the disagreeable fact that there may be a price to be paid - in human rights and possibly in nuclear proliferation as well.
No doubt the repressions of South Korean President Park have various causes. But one of them, surely, is his perceived need to batten down the domestic hatches at a time of gathering international uncertainty. For him, the uncertainty, and the battening down, have arisen from the Nixon, Ford and now the Carter decisions to reduce American military exposure on the Asian mainland. So it is that Mr. Park's political opponents seem even more alarmed than he by the planned troop withdrawals. They sahre their government's fear that North Korea may try to take advantage of the pullout. In addition, they fear that it will precipitate further domestic crackdowns.
Rational people here will tell the Koreans that, but cracking down, they threaten future aid. Koreans will reply that, the more the United States unlinks its own fate from the fate of Korea, the less will Seoul feel obliged to heed Washington's advice on human rights.
The other day a Park aide suggested that Korea might develop its own nuclear bomb if Washington were to decide later to remove its tactical nuclear weapons as well as its troops. The Carter administration vigorously opposes the spread of nuclear arms, of course. Korean movement in that direction would further fray an American commitment already weakened by time and by South Korean repressions. But it is the United States that established the nuclear precedent in Korea and thereby whetted the Korean military's nuclear appetite. And it is the United States - by withdrawing its ground forces and thus removing the one element that would guarantee American involvement in a crisis - that is feeding Korea's feeling of being abandoned and thereby focusing Korea's thoughts on alternate means of self-reliance.
This is not to say that troop withdrawal is a bad idea. It is to say that unless it is managed with exquisite care, other major interests of the United States will be seriously jeopardized. The simple slogans of withdrawal are poor guides to the complexities of the situation on the ground.